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After their unborn baby dies, Kate and John Coleman (Farmiga and Sarsgaard) decide to adopt a child as a hopeful way to bring some joy and normalcy into their lives. Esther (Fuhrman), a 9-year-old orphan, captivates the couple, and comes home to live with them, though a strange sequence of events follows Esther's arrival, who's angelic façade might mask sinister intentions.
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Orphan is a thriller that works. The last half-hour of this nasty but Hollywood-slick piece of work tied my guts in knots as director Jaume Collet-Serra (who previously helmed 2005’s “House of Wax” remake) works his material like a maestro. I felt wrung out, spent as I walked out of the theater; I even told my companion that I felt like I’d just gone twelve rounds with a heavyweight champion. This film is everything that a classic mainstream thriller should be. It looks and sounds great, it’s a touch on the tawdry side, and it’s utterly shameless in its willingness to tear at our most primal desires and fears just to get a rise out of us.
The film centers around Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga), a former Ivy League music teacher who, despite her beautiful Connecticut country home and two wonderful children, has some issues. She is a precariously recovering alcoholic, whose past drunken mistakes resulted in her beautiful little daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) losing her hearing. There are also intimations that her problems with the bottle may have led to the stillbirth of another daughter, a tragedy she has yet to completely recover from; the film opens with a horrific sequence in which Kate relives the birth of a tiny, bloody corpse. Despite her touch-and-go mental state, Kate and her architect husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) have decided to bring another child into their home, this time by way of adoption. They find just who they’re looking for at a Catholic orphanage, where John strikes up a quick rapport with Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian immigrant with prodigious talents as a painter, a battered Bible under her arm, and a penchant for singing “Glory of Love”. Not to mention the mysterious ribbons she wears around her wrists and neck, and which she never, ever takes off.
The Colemans welcome Esther into their home, and right from the start, things don’t go according to plan. The Coleman’s son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) finds himself the butt of jokes at school over his “retard” of a new sister. Esther herself endures much teasing, not to mention the mutilation of her beloved Bible at the hands of her classmates. And then Esther herself begins to reveal unforeseen complications to her personality. She shocks Kate one day with casual usage of a particular four-letter word. She has a habit of interrupting her new parents in the midst of sexual intimacy. Then there’s the discovery that Esther, after accepting Kate’s offer of piano lessons, is a keyboard virtuoso. And the casual way she dispatches a wounded pigeon that Daniel has shot with a paintball gun. And the mysterious accident that befalls one of Esther’s tormentors on a playground slide. And the hidden true nature of the young girl’s paintings. As the horrors escalate and Kate finds herself alone in facing the true nature of her new child, we ask ourselves, is this a female Damian, the spawn of the Lord of Darkness himself? I’ll leave that for you the viewer to discover. All I can say, without giving the game away, is that the poster’s dead-on accurate. There is indeed something wrong with Esther.
Like many of the most memorable Hollywood thrillers, “Orphan” works best when playing on real-world fears, and the film does a fine job of harnessing the tension and confusion an adopted parent must face when dealing with the difficulties of a new child in their home. Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson (working from an original story by Alex Mace) does a fine job of arraying the Colemans’ relationships with Esther so that the children and Kate are all aware of her true nature, but isolated from one another in confronting the horror that has invaded their home. Kate’s relationship with John is another element of the film that elevates it above your average by-the-numbers shock show, as Johnson does skillful work in painting the strains in a relationship that has faltered under mutual betrayals and years of unspoken mistrust. The recovering-addict Kate is not the only one who has failed in her responsibilities as a wife and mother. John has been guilty of adultery, and the tensions that simmer beneath the surface of their every interaction burst forth as they are forced to confront the problem of Esther. The little girl, you see, has taken a special liking to her new daddy, and she cleverly manipulates both John and the rest of the family to plant him resolutely on her side. After all, who’s he going to trust? A somewhat troubled but clearly innocent little girl, or a woman whose flaws and mistakes have already cost one child her hearing and another her life? Never mind that Esther is willing to mutilate herself to get him on her side, and never mind that the little girl may be the first case in history of a reverse Oedipus complex. The cracks in this marriage’s foundation were there from the start, and Esther is merely the jackhammer to send the whole edifice tumbling down.
The second act of “Orphan”, which so strongly confronts the raw, harsh truths of painful familial interactions, rescues the film from its own beginning, which plays far too much like a cookie-cutter Hollywood thrill machine. In the early parts of the picture, Collet-Serra relies far too much on musical stings and cheap things-jumping-in-from-the-sides-of-the-screen scares, as if we would be impatient with domestic melodrama and need to be constantly reminded that we haven’t wandered into a revival-house screening of “Ordinary People”, that it is in fact a thriller we’re watching. But once the director hunkers down in the house with the family and their problems and Esther’s growing manipulations and escalating acts of violence, we become surprisingly invested in the outcome, and by the time we get to the end game, these sorts of hackneyed thriller tactics feel earned, and work much better than they did earlier on in the film. Of course, like many modern thrillers, “Orphan” turns on a third-act twist that alters our understanding of everything that has gone before. This surprise, while not really set up adequately in the screenplay’s first three quarters, nevertheless packs the required kick, as well as serving to free the filmmakers from the ickier implications of their material. It must be admitted, however, that I never see the twists coming in thrillers, so many of you might figure it out before I ever could have.
Collet-Serra’s crew give “Orphan” a spot-on Hollywood thriller shine. Tim Alverson’s editing holds the right moments to create maximum tension, while splintering the scenes of horror and violence into jolting but always coherent fragments. Production designer Tom Meyer provides a beautiful but foreboding modernist home in which the Colemans’ horrors play out, and cinematographer Jeff Cutter lenses the proceedings with the appropriate intermingling of shadow and light. Of course, the cast is crucial to making material like “Orphan” work; if they ever betray the slightest doubt in the material, the artifice of the genre exercise will collapse around them. Fortunately, the actors attack this pulpy stuff with genuine vigor and conviction. Farmiga, who is herself a new mother, must have been feeling the nesting instinct kicking in pretty strongly here, as she tears into the role of a mother hell-bent on protecting her children (even if it’s from another one of her children) with an intensity bordering on the feral. Sarsgaard, a veteran of the indie scene, is an unusual choice for this kind of genre piece, but his intelligence and natural wariness prove a good fit as he struggles to figure out his own feelings about his new child. CCH Pounder has a nice small role as the supervising nun of the orphanage, and Margo Martindale makes an impression in a few brief scenes as the family therapist.
Of course, many people will probably blast “Orphan” for its portrayal of children in peril and for its foregrounding of a nine-year-old as the central heavy. But honestly, these complaints will mainly serve as a testament to the strength of the three young actors who are the anchors of this picture. If we don’t buy these kids, we don’t buy “Orphan”, and I bought them and it hook, line and sinker. Bennett is a perfectly natural onscreen kid as Daniel, and Engineer, who is hearing-impaired in real life, gives a marvelously expressive physical performance. And if nothing else, this film serves as a showcase for the astonishing Isabelle Fuhrman, who at the tender age of 12 throws this film on her shoulders and carries it across the finish line. She is so disarmingly sweet and beautiful in the early scenes that I found myself really feeling for this lonely little kid…and then feeling as duped by her act as Kate when she reveals her true, psychotic colors. Fuhrman never falters, never steps wrong, and most of all, never seems to be acting. There’s real darkness, real evil in this portrayal, and the fact that such a young performer can capture this so vividly is truly awesome. I never thought I would hear an entire audience applaud a woman calling her adopted daughter a bitch and slapping her down…but Fuhrman’s diabolical portrayal earns the moment its applause.
The entire audience at the screening I attended (it was actually the film’s official premiere, held in Westwood, CA and with much of the cast along for the ride; I myself sat a row or two away from Sarsgaard) reacted much this way throughout “Orphan”, gasping at the horrific moments and cheering when Kate got the upper hand against her “little girl”. It’s just that kind of movie, nakedly manipulative but doubtlessly effective, and if this viewer, who’s not really a fan of the genre, got into it, I imagine the thriller aficionados amongst you will be beside yourselves with glee. It’s been a long, hot, bright summer so far. Take a chance, and darken things up a little with this one. But don’t say I didn’t warn you….because there is really something wrong with Esther.